Nitin Bhutani was bored. It was the fall of 1992 and he was hanging out with friends between classes when he was attending Long Island University, New York. The group had two hours to kill. Bhutani proposed that they go to the student recreation center and play some of the pinball and arcade games there. Dark-skinned with black, slicked-back hair, he looked for any excuse to get away from the classrooms and play games. Truth be told, however, he was lukewarm towards his own suggestion. He and his boys had played to death at the rec center’s handful of coin-operated amusements. But it was either pushing buttons or pushing books, so they headed to the recreation center.
To Bhutani’s surprise, a new cabinet stood among the ranks of the games he had conquered. He looked at the mode of attraction. When the title of the game flashed across the screen, something about it – the intentional misspelling, the gold letters on a red background – caught his eye. A few other guys stepped in to play. One of them ended the match by firing a bolt of lightning at the other character which blew his head off in a stream of blood. Holy shit, he was thinking. “It just popped up one day. I see this game where people chop their heads off and I’m like, ‘Oh my god. I gotta play this,'” he recalled.
Bhutani no longer needed to chase distractions between classes. In fact, the lessons had become the distraction. He spent five to six hours a day playing mortal combat, bouncing between the recreation center cabinet and his local arcade. Facing computer-controlled opponents was getting tedious. He needed challengers who would force him to become even better. “I try to tell people, when you were young and you went to a video arcade, it was always one-on-one,” he says.
His friends liked the game and played against him. Soon, however, Bhutani was ahead of them. They were wasting their money and he was wasting his time fighting guys who weren’t pushing him to grow as a player.
That’s when the rumors started. “When you play in certain arcades, you hear, ‘Hey, there are a few guys in such and such a arcade who are good.’ You drive there and see what happens,” says Bhutani.
Taking driving time and fuel into account mortal combat hourly, Bhutani got into the habit of piling into his car with friends and looking for competitors. He would usually beat them, and one of three results would happen: they would swear a storm and storm out of the arcade, try to fight him, or show him deference and ask to run with his crew. No matter how things went, Bhutani planted his flag in the floor of every gambling hall he conquered. As he expanded his territory, he kept an ear open to rumors of top players. Then he would go to their area and beat them too. “It was like that back then,” he says of how word of mouth introduced him to fresh meat. “There are no computers, none of that. There are beeps. What are you going to do? Beep someone?”
While playing one day, Bhutani learned from a comrade MK addicted that one of the best players in the scene went up against all comers in a Westbury arcade. Bhutani smirked. He had heard that before. The other player was adamant it wasn’t a brand. This guy was one of the developers who made the game, and he was unstoppable. Divine.
“The guy who made the game? Bhutani remembers saying. “Okay. Let’s get a piece of him.”